On Names and Pseudonyms

Lessons and facts about using different names

Names are weird. Take “Ivan”, for instance. There's Ivan Bunin, a Russian writer and a Nobel laureate; there's Ivan IV the Terrible (or the Formidable), the first Moscow ruler who declared himself tsar of all Russia, who also killed his own son; there's Ivan The Fool, a character of Russian folklore, a silly, naïve yet lucky guy; there's Ioann The Baptist (Ioann is now a clerical version Ivan), a Jewish preacher in the early 1st century AD; there's Ivan Ayvazovsky, a Russian Romantic painter, the master of marine art; there's Ivan Drago, a stereotypical Soviet Boxer, the arch-nemesis of Rocky Balboa; there's Ivan Pavlov, a psychologist, another Novel laureate, in the mass culture famous for his dog experiments. These are just the ones from the top of my mind but the list can go on for a long time – I can write an entire essay listing famous Ivans, using Wikipedia, obviously.

Ivan Drago looking at you with the only desire. To break you.

Most of them would be people of Slavic origin but if we step back and spice it with etymology, my favourite ingredient for any seemingly hard writing task, we will find Greek name Iōánnēs from Hebrew יוֹחָנָן Yôḥānnān, meaning 'God is gracious' or 'God was merciful'. There is a diagram showing how these names sneaked into modern cultures and then transformed into many many variants like Ivan, Johannes, Evan, Juan, Johan, Giovanni, Sean and John. These names have the same roots and John is often used as a translation of Ivan. Look at John The Baptist I mentioned above by other name or Prince John Konstantinovich of Russia (the latter, to be honest, sounds a little bit weird to my taste).

It is often not a translation but rather an interpretation of the name, an alternative version that sounds good for native speakers. However, we can't say these all are synonymical. History pierced through them. It remixed them like it has been doing with any word in any language, dead or alive. It modified them and, despite the origin stayed the same, the form and context have changed and cultural specifics, stereotypes and random patterns entwined the names like ivy does.

Now, as I was told by British people, when you hear John you imagine an accountant or a mechanic, but when you hear Ivan, you imagine a 6 feet tall, muscled, moustached and tattooed killing machine, thanks to Ivan Drago, perhaps. However, I don't have the same feeling as a Russian. For me, Ivan is just a common name and could be associated with anyone I listed above - a mechanic, an accountant, a writer, a painter, a cruel tsar, a fool, a boxer, a priest, a scientist, or just me. Same for John, the name I was using for the last half a year. John for me is John Lennon, John McClane, John Malkovich and others. Most of them are famous people or characters I read in books, saw on TV or somewhere else when I was a kid or a teenager. There was no John I knew in person for the majority of my life and this name has always been something distantly and attractively Western.

Years ago, I was having a fun evening attempting to translate my first name and surname into English, digging etymology, name meanings and history. Thus I came up with John Hellion. It sounded good, rhymed and rhythmic, and I was using it from time to time as a nickname across the internet and online games for a few years.

About a year ago, when I started my attempts at writing and publishing online, I realised my mind didn't allow me to do it under my real name. I published a few technical articles related to my day job and then, to my surprise, a few of my ex- and current colleagues and friends reached me. I wasn’t prepared for that and fear and anxiety kicked me in the groin. The people said the articles were good and they enjoyed them but it didn't matter to me. The fact they discovered them is what was important.

I didn't want anyone who I knew in-person to discover it If I had not shared it. Perhaps, I was overthinking, I admit it, yes. I did not want my writing intertwined with my legal identity.  I wanted this liberating feeling of detachment, I wanted a superhero mask to become someone else by night, a writer. No, I wasn't going to write something provocative, mean or evil. No, not at all. Neither was I afraid of being cancelled for what I could say online. The reputation, like Reddit karma, or like real Karma, if you believe either of these, and responsibility for words are important, regardless of where and how you say them, regardless of whether they come from under your fingertips or from your mouth.

One of the most famous and most-read contemporary Russian fiction writers, Viktor Pelevin, who is claimed to be a Nabokov of the digital age, uses his real name to sign his work (from what I know) but nobody knows anything about his real life. He doesn't exist in the internet space, he doesn't visit any public events, he never gives any interviews. The only few photos of him which are always used by social media and book publishers were taken at the beginning of the 2000s. Around the same time, Pelevin's last public appearance happened at a literature symposium in Tokyo where he was together with a few other Russian writers. Then, at some point, he... disappeared. Nobody knows exactly when and journalists and fans speculate and create myths referencing his work saying he is enjoying his solitude somewhere in Tibet or got dissolved in the void. Despite he is not in the public space, Pelevin is aware of what's going on in the world, vaguely at least, and we can see it in his work. After his last public appearance, he published 14 novels, around one book per year (most are claimed to be successful and loved by fans), and some people ironically assume that all the books were written by a group of authors or, now, some neural network. Pelevin exists and doesn't exist at the same time. He is a man with a nebulous cloud of mystery surrounding him. Even considering the whole 30 years of his prolific writing career, you can say nothing about Pelevin as a person or what this person thinks. Nobody knows him as a person but everyone knows him as an author. Thus if you want to understand who he really is, you have to read his novels. No other way.

One can hardly achieve such a level of privacy and mystery with a real name after spending years online, posting pictures on Instagram, maintaining your Linkedin page, or tweeting texts from fortune cookies you ate at a Chinese restaurant. If you want to be incognito in the digital world, you should start early and be deliberate and committed on your journey. Otherwise, it is arduous. Pelevin had an advantage. He got into his digital seclusion before Twitter and Facebook even existed and I believe he knew something.

But let’s return back to me.

All I did and do want on my journey, not only as a writer, is to get a little tiny bit of privacy back from web2 and all-embracing attention-eating abominations from a place famously named after the chemical element Si. Now everyone is online, everything is online. Social media pushed us to use our legal names and, leaving in the dark the culture of pseudonymous and anonymous forums, chats and blogs of the 2000s, the internet has become embedded into our lives and now the real you and the internet you together have melted into one entity.

I didn't want fame or to build a br*nd out of any of the names of mine. Those things have never been appealing to me. All I wanted was to be incognito. Am I a trembling creature or whether I have the right to privacy?

But I made at least one mistake.

Chekhov started with a pseudonym. He was published under the name Antosha Chekhonte, which sounds a bit funny and childish to my Russian ear but I think it was the deliberate effect. Nabokov used a pseudonym, too. He signed his work as Vladimir Sirin while living in Berlin in the early years of emigration. Alexei Peshkov is known to everyone as a great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Anna Akhmatova's real surname was Gorenko but then she officially changed it to Akhmatova. There were and are many others and the list can go long enough to lose a reader in it.

You may ask, who am I to put myself on the list together with all these great Russians? I am too far from their levels of excellence (yet, haha) but I believe one should have a model, a good reference to learn from by imitation and inspiration. The most you can think of has been done already by someone, and yet, taking lessons from history is what many of us often neglect doing. Stories about people, whether real or fictional, is where you can find lessons you need, including writing and using pseudonyms. You can learn far more from it than from any mediocre Twitter thread.

Pseudonyms and pen names are not a Russian thing, obviously. It is common in all countries and languages, in all artistic and not only fields but I chose Russians for a reason. Although all those writers were all using pen names, they used Russian pen names. However, I didn't choose the same route and I think it was my mistake.

You can choose a catchy or a better sounding name for marketing purposes, or you can come up with a unique name to make it distinguishable from other authors or your famous parents, or you can do it to hide or highlight a specific cultural background, or you just want to be incognito. The reasons are endless but in any case, despite all imperfections of names, a name you choose should mean something to you. Whatever you sign your work with, it should reflect your particular self who wrote it.

Selves are endless. They deserve to get a name that better suits them if they need so.  If it is the self that wants to be pseudonymous – fine, I am still much in favour of that. If it is the self that wants a cosy hideout - fine, we all have our own reasons and whims. If it is the self that claims himself Russian yet calls himself John – well... for me it stopped being fine but you can decide for yourself. For me, it caused an awkward inward dissonance. I was comfortable with John but every time I finished another essay for the Lifeboat and put this name at the end I felt it wasn't John who wrote it, almost like I was ghostwriting for myself and…

Well, enough words for today. That’s all I wanted to share.

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